Let’s Talk about Substance Abuse and Domestic Violence

Baseball has a problem. It needs to be addressed. (via Liza)

I have been a baseball fan for a really long time. I imagine most of you reading this have been fans for a long time as well. As a lover of data and athletics, baseball is the perfect amalgam of everything I love in sports.

Sadly, I feel my love for the game is slowly being ripped away from me. This is not because more batters are striking out than ever before. This is not because more home runs are being hit than ever before. It is Major League Baseball’s failure to help transition its top-tier athletes from normal lives to lives of monumental wealth and fame, as well as a failure to help them transition to life after baseball. In my opinion, a laissez-faire approach has been demonstrably proven to be woefully inadequate.

Let me be perfectly clear: Each and every player is personally accountable for his actions. MLB is not to blame, legally nor ethically, for the actions of its players. However, this does not mean more shouldn’t be done.

I don’t have the answers here, and I will not attempt to offer any. The following instances have all drained a little life out of my proverbial baseball soul. If enough of these occur, I fear it will deplete my love for the game beyond the point of no return.

Let’s Talk about Substance Abuse Disorders

On September 25, 2016, we lost one of the most exciting young pitchers in the game. José Fernández was electric, entertaining, and one of my favorite pitchers to watch. Tragically, he made the poor decision to pilot his yacht when he wasn’t sober. Toxicology later reported he had cocaine in his system and was legally drunk. He took two other lives with him.

Oscar Taveras was an exciting young prospect for the St. Louis Cardinals, with a tremendous blend of contact skills and enough power to be dangerous. While back in the Dominican Republic, he got behind of the wheel of his Red Camaro with five times the legal limit of alcohol in his system. That decision cost him his life and the life of his girlfriend.

Tommy Hanson was once one of the top young pitchers in the game. The winter following his release from the Giants’ minor-league system, he died from “delayed complications of cocaine and alcohol toxicity.

Tyler Skaggs, of more recent tragedy, also died from substance abuse. He died of an overdose, with a mixture of fentanyl, oxycodone, and alcohol in his system. A recent ESPN article revealed that his opioid usage was known to the club for quite a while, and that a team official was providing him with narcotics.

Yordano Ventura’s toxicology report never was released. However, his estate still has not been paid out the full value of his contract.

Hall of Famer Roy Halladay flew an airplane with fatal levels of amphetamines in his system. According to the linked article, 500 ng/ml can cause death. Halladay’s level was 1,800 ng/ml. That he put himself at risk is an understatement. That he didn’t kill anyone else while flying is very fortunate. Perhaps because DUIs don’t get as much attention as other issues, his death may have actually helped his case for the Hall.

I’ve been in Toronto most of my adult life. Needless to say, I was a big Halladay fan. My memory of him now is as a danger to society who put himself and strangers in harm’s way by flying under the influence. I cannot separate the two anymore.

All of these stories came as a shock to their teammates and the baseball world in general. They contain a mixture of athletes in their prime, athletes struggling to compete, and athletes struggling with a post-baseball life.

Addiction is a mental health issue, not a legal issue. I do not know if any of the above-mentioned players struggled with substance abuse disorders, or if these were isolated incidents. The core issue is the stigma associated with drug and alcohol use that prevents players from talking about it.

Are teams — and by extension, Major League Baseball — making significant efforts to educate their players? Are they providing a confidential outlet for players in cases when they feel the need to reach out? Are they providing mentors who speak the same language as the younger players and who can offer support and information?

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

I’m not an insider, nor a reporter with access to clubhouses, so I can’t answer those questions. I can, however, look at the data, and the data screams, “No!”

Baseball, please do more to help your players. I don’t want to lose another José Fernández. I don’t want the memory of another Hall of Famer to be tarnished forever.

There are multitudes of moral and ethical reasons to do more about preventing and treating substance abuse disorders. Those should be enough on their own. Baseball, though, is a business, and business reasons tend to dominate business decisions. Outside of federal laws requiring teams or the commissioner’s office to do something, I don’t expect teams to make business decisions based on moral principles.

Still, even by the logic of business, it doesn’t make sense to have a system in place that doesn’t do everything possible to protect the lives of your players. What is the cost to MLB of losing a talent like Fernández? How many fans did the Cubs and Astros lose by employing Russell and Osuna, respectively? Is MLB combatting this human cost by investing in the prevention of substance abuse disorders and domestic violence? It is negligent not to do everything possible to prevent these instances.

Again, it is the players themselves who are ultimately accountable for their actions. But it is clear that there is more that could — and should — be done.

Let’s Talk about Domestic Violence

I have two young daughters. One does not need to have any daughters to be appalled by the Felipe Vázquez story. But the thought that, in the future, a baseball player might leverage his position to prey on one of my children doesn’t exactly make me want to be a fan of baseball. While it appears unlikely Vázquez will ever pitch in the majors again, if he does, I doubt I’ll have the stomach to watch.

And while one might think Vázquez won’t play again, there are numerous existing cases that suggest baseball will tolerate the continued presence of players accused of heinous acts.

First is the case of Addison Russell.  Russell was first accused of abusing his then-wife, Melisa Reidy, in an Instagram post in June of 2017, prompting a preliminary investigation from MLB. That investigation was never closed. In September of 2018, Reidy expanded on the allegations of abuse in a post on her blog — allegations that Russell again denied. Russell was placed on paid administrative leave, and this time, the subsequent MLB investigation led to Russell’s suspension on October 3. After serving the 40-game suspension, Russell returned to his role as the Cubs’ shortstop.

Here’s an excerpt from a December 2018 interview with Reidy:

Reidy says Russell had their son in one arm, and grabbed the front of her shirt with the other, throwing her across the room and onto the ground. “I was this close to my head hitting the coffee table,” she continues, “I just sat up and looked and he closed the bedroom door and had Aiden in there.” She went into the other room, and retrieved Aiden when she heard Russell go out onto the balcony. She fell asleep and woke up to him in bed with the two of them. Afterward, she was the one who felt like she had to apologize.

In the interview, Reidy documents a litany of verbal, physical, and emotional abuse that went on for years. Russell described the lengthy allegations as “completely false” before eventually admitting to having caused “pain” and “hurt” to Reidy, apologizing for his non-specific “past actions.”

Then there is the case of Roberto Osuna.

Osuna was arrested in Toronto in the early hours of May 8, 2018. According to the Globe and Mail, a source said police saw “significant injuries” on the alleged victim, who provided a video statement to officers. The charges against Osuna were eventually, since the victim — as often happens in domestic violence cases — refused to testify. Osuna signed a peace bond stating that he would not contact the alleged victim for one year, but he denies the allegations and has never admitted guilt.

The MLB investigation into the allegations led to the league suspending him for 75 games. Critically, though, that suspension did not make him ineligible for the postseason, making him a target for acquisition via trade. And the Astros did just that on July 30, 2018, sending the struggling Ken Giles and two middling pitching prospects to the Blue Jays in exchange for Osuna. Osuna went on to pitch 22 2/3 innings with a 1.99 ERA for the Astros in 2018, with six additional innings in the postseason. Had the domestic violence suspension never occurred, it is highly unlikely that the Astros would have acquired Osuna while giving up such a light return.

The list of players investigated or accused of domestic violence is a long one. In 2019, the list includes Domingo Germán, Julio Urias and Odúbel Herrera. Last season’s includes the aforementioned Osuna and Russell, as well as José Torres, Miguel Sanó and Steven Wright. If we go back further, we include names like Aroldis Chapman, José Reyes, and Derek Norris.

None of these instances is good for baseball. And as we saw this week, the effects of player instances of domestic violence ripple through the culture of the sport well beyond the ends of their suspensions. The story of the 2019 Astros’ World Series will now be defined by the actions of assistant general manager Brandon Taubman and the team’s subsequent attempts to discredit reporting of his behavior. Days later, the Astros have still failed to address the situation adequately. For this to be the big story on the eve of the sport’s biggest event is both telling and profoundly damaging.

Final Thoughts

I don’t have the answers to these issues, nor do I pretend to. I’m just a baseball fan, fortunate enough to have a platform to voice these thoughts. I am not remotely qualified to offer any solutions.

But there is a problem in this sport, a problem that is slowly eating away at my love for baseball. It’s a problem that, incident by incident, is making me question whether at some point I’ll wake up and not be a fan of baseball anymore.

To MLB: Please listen. Please do your utmost to help players deal with substance abuse disorders. Please do your utmost to educate, coach, and mentor athletes how to conduct themselves off the field as much as you do on the field. Because it’s the right thing to do, or because you simply want to safeguard your business — either way, action must be taken. One more incident of domestic violence, one more player death, will be one too many. Protect the game. Protect your players.

If you are struggling with the effects of domestic violence or substance abuse, there is help available. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the Crisis Text Line, or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

References & Resources


Eli Ben-Porat is a Senior Manager of Reporting & Analytics for Rogers Communications. The views and opinions expressed herein are his own. He builds data visualizations in Tableau, and builds baseball data in Rust. Follow him on Twitter @EliBenPorat, however you may be subjected to (polite) Canadian politics.
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jcc
2 years ago

“ Let me be perfectly clear: Each and every player is personally accountable for his actions. MLB is not to blame, legally nor ethically, for the actions of its players. However, this does not mean more shouldn’t be done.”

The first two sentences of this are exactly right. What MLB is to blame for, though, is tolerating this behavior. There are only 750 MLB roster spots and the league should hold the very few players fortunate enough to get one to a higher standard, starting with a zero tolerance policy for credible accusations of domestic violence or endangering others. Due process is enshrined in our legal system for a reason, but MLB is not the government; it’s a business that must protect its reputation and that can (and does) set its own standards of evidence and proof in these allegations.

I was disgusted that game 6 of the ALCS came down to a ninth inning battle between Osuna and Chapman. The only team to cheer for at that point was Washington.

Also to blame are the fans who forgive and forget these behaviors so quickly. As a business, MLB would be quick to respond to fan pressure to do more, but that pressure doesn’t seem to be a big factor yet.

HappyFunBallmember
2 years ago

Domestic abuse is a problem for the legal system. No kidding the legal system isn’t perfect, and there is a long list of offenders who are probably (or certainly) guilty and yet aren’t found so for any of a number of reasons. It isn’t MLB’s role (or that of any private industry) to be a backup legal system, to exact punishment when no one else does.

It’s a tough spot to be in. MLB is an entertainment business, and the public reputations of the players are hugely important. For that reason alone they absolutely have an interest in taking a hard line on domestic abuse. And yet they are reluctant, because they know that headlines fade away and victories on the field apply an inordinate amount of forgiveness.

And yet there IS a solution. Don’t like it when you team trades for a domestic abuser? Don’t like it when a misogynistic team executive runs his mouth? Or when the team is dumb enough to back him up? Stop buying tickets. Stop buying merchandise.

Stop. Giving. Them. Your. Money.

The best and only way to make them listen is to hit them in the wallet. Otherwise all you’re going to get are league policies that are little more than half-hearted PR gestures.

Outta my way, Gyorkass
2 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Also worth noting: There is strong evidence that zero-tolerance policies for DV do not actually do any good (other than, ironically, as an ultimately empty PR gesture). This is certainly not to advocate for “do nothing”, and let abusers off scot free, but the truly optimal course of action for MLB is not ever going to be particularly easy to chart.

https://deadspin.com/zero-tolerance-for-domestic-violence-will-only-make-it-1787428167

As fans, though, we certainly hold the power to let our money talk for us.

Benjaminmember
2 years ago

Here’s another article with a similar argument
https://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/ct-life-cubs-domestic-abuse-treatment-20190218-story.html

“Southworth and other advocates say the best approach is somewhat counterintuitive. “We advocate for a measured but robust approach,” she says, primarily because it’s safer for victims. “If you have a zero-tolerance policy where the first time a victim calls 911 her abuser loses his entire career and livelihood, it actually drives down victims disclosing and coming forward.” If one phone call effectively destroys an abuser professionally, his victim may find herself in an even more dangerous position. “You have to worry not only about losing your mortgage or rent money, but about the increased risk of you dying, because he’s got nothing to lose at that point.””

Jimmember
2 years ago

Taubman was fired today. Good.

widekund
2 years ago

On an analytical minded website on would expect some discussion whether the prevalences of substance abuse or domestic violence are worse than expected given the population of young men that the MLB recruits its players from. Since there are several hundred active players in the major leagues alone every year, the list of examples cited certainly does not suggest it on its own. If we don’t think the rates in the MLB are unusually high, we can wonder how much lower realistically the MLB can make them.

Barrymember
2 years ago

Let’s talk about baseball instead.

Bruce Markusen
2 years ago

I would say that addiction is both a mental health issue and a legal one. If you are using certain drugs that are illegal, you are clearly breaking the law. If addiction causes you to drive under the influence (be it alcohol or marijuana), you are breaking the law… Personally, I am all for giving people (and players) a second, or even a third chance. I am not, however, in favor of what happened with Steve Howe, who was given seven or eight chances, but continually went back to drug abuse. At some point, MLB (and other professional leagues) have the right to ban a player from their sports, if for no other reason to minimize the damage that the player can have on the sport’s reputation and its other participants. We should certainly expect MLB to try to help players who have fallen under the influence of drugs and alcohol, but it should not be the league’s responsibility to look after a player perpetually.